Christo Tomy-Ullozhukku
Christo Tomy (L), Tomy with Ullozhukku stars Parvathy and Urvashi

Christo Tomy: I never imagined spending eight years with Ullozhukku

Two-time National award-winning filmmaker Christo Tomy on his debut feature, Ullozhukku, and his eight-year-long journey with it

Christo Tomy's filmmaking journey so far has been quite unusual and eventful. He graduated from the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) in 2016 with the rare distinction of being a two-time National award winner. His short films, Kanyaka (2013) and Kamuki (2015), made as part of his institute projects, bagged the awards for Best Debut Film and Best Direction, respectively, in the non-feature section. Two years later, he was inducted as a member of the National awards jury for non-feature films. He then went on to direct Curry and Cyanide: The Jolly Joseph Case, a true-crime documentary for Netflix—all this before making a feature film, which is generally considered the ultimate destination for filmmakers in Indian cinema. Christo is finally getting there this Friday with Ullozhukku, his pet project that he has been working on for years. Looking back at the journey, the director reflects, "When I started developing this idea, I thought it would take a maximum of 2-3 years, but never imagined I would spend eight years of my life with it. Hopefully, all the time and effort will be worth it."

Excerpts

Q

Though you have won several accolades for your works, this is perhaps the first time you are awaiting an audience verdict...

A

Yes, although I got a slight taste of it before Curry and Cyandie's release, this feels entirely different. Unlike streaming, here, you can watch the film with the public and sense their reactions in real time. You will also get to see if they are responding to a scene the way you intended it. All this is real pressure.

Q

Most of your works, including the short films, the Netflix documentary, and Ullozhukku, are all female-centric. Do you think you are more drawn towards women's stories

A

It was never a deliberately attempted pattern, so I don't know how to answer this. Recently, when someone pointed this out, Urvashi chechi said, "Christo must have been a good observant of what's happening within the family. That's why he's able to narrate such tales." Maybe that's the reason, but I can vouch that there's no conscious effort to tell stories from any particular gender's perspective; I just try to find ways to amplify the drama. For instance, the situation in Ullozhukku is way harder for a woman to deal with than a man.

Q

You got Parvathy and Urvashi, two powerhouses of talents to anchor Ullozhukku. How different are their processes?

A

I first approached Parvathy in 2018, but at that time, she felt the role was too intense for her. We then met a couple of years later, and all this while, I had been streamlining the script. This time, she could comprehend her character better. She was also excited when I told her about Urvashi chechi. They both have completely different approaches to acting. Parvathy is more methodical. She would want to know everything about the character, including her costume. Chechi, on the other hand, is mostly spontaneous. But there were certain moments when she would silently sit in a corner and rehearse her lines. Their processes might be different, but they both are incredibly talented, single-take actors.

Q

Your short film Kanyaka also had an Urvashi-connection. It was about a nun's fascination for film star Urvashi. Did you ever tell her about it?

A

No, I don't think she knows, but I now wonder why I didn't tell her about it. Just like the nun in Kanyaka, I'm also a huge fan of chechi's works. I wanted her to be part of Ullozhukku right from its inception. Before we commenced shooting, I went to her place in Chennai and discussed the film and her character for one whole day. It was incredible listening to her vast experiences and how she relates to a character. It felt like attending a crash course on life and cinema.

Q

Ullozhukku's script won the first prize among over 35,000 submissions at Cinestaan India's Storytellers Contest, judged by Aamir Khan, Rajkumar Hirani, Anjum Rajabali, and Juhi Chaturvedi. How did it happen?

A

I learnt about the contest through a friend. I was initially hesitant to apply as I had only around ₹300 in my bank account, but still went ahead with it. I just wanted to win some prize for monetary gains, but I turned out to win the top prize of ₹25 lakhs. Beyond money, it was also a much-needed validation for my creative journey. After shortlisting the final five contestants, they helped us pitch the scripts to various major studios. Honey (Trehan) liked my script and wanted to direct it, but when I told him about my plans, he offered to produce it.

Q

Is it the same award-winning draft that we are about to see now?

A

No, I must have written at least 25 versions. With each new draft, I kept fleshing out the characters and tried to understand them better. In 2019, I had also attended the Global Media Makers program in Los Angeles, where I got to meet and interact with many brilliant minds from across the world. I got many valuable inputs from there and tried incorporating all the valid suggestions.

Q

Despite having an award-winning script and finding a producer very early, why did it take so long to execute the project?

A

In 2020, we decided to shoot the film in my home in Kuttanad and started the pre-production work. However, the pandemic spoilt our plans. After that, it took two years for everything to fall into place again. The idea was to shoot during the monsoon. So naturally there's only a small window for shooting. If we lose one monsoon, then we have to wait until next year.

We eventually managed to complete the shoot in the monsoon of 2022. It was physically demanding as everyone, including the actors and technicians, had to be soaked in knee-deep water all day. It was also tiring because we couldn't predict the weather. The skies would be clear in the morning, but would start pouring down a few minutes later. Shooting in the river was also extremely challenging because of the strong undercurrents. The interior scenes were comparatively easier as the water flow was mostly under our control.

Q

Since you shot the film at your own home, is there a personal-connect to this story?

A

Yes, the film is inspired by an incident that happened in my family. In Kuttanad, it floods every monsoon and it was during one such rainy season in 2005 that my grandfather passed away. We waited for nine days for the water to subside to cremate him. The incident stayed with me for years, I knew it had to be my first film. Of course, the film has many other themes, but the base idea was inspired by that incident.

Q

Being a film institute product, have you ever faced any discrimination from the industry?

A

Not really, but I do think that film institute graduates are finding it tough to adapt to the commercial nature of the industry; especially those from SRFTI. I can only think of Amal Neerad who has made it big. Those from institutes, particularly filmmakers, should realise that cinema is also a business where a lot of money is involved. Unlike before, I'm now aware of the importance of a film's commercial success. I want to entertain people with meaningful content. It's easier for me to handle drama than commercial entertainers because I'm trained for it, but I still wish to experiment all kinds of genres.

Q

Recently at Cannes, Payal Kapaida spoke about how even parallel films are getting distribution in Kerala. Do you think we've reached a place where making independent and parallel films are commercially viable?

A

No, I don't think we are there, yet. I don't want to bracket films, but just because a parallel or arthouse film won a National award or an international recognition doesn't mean you'll get good reception in theatres. But I'll also have to admit that Kerala audiences are a lot more welcoming of new content. It's evident from the reception for some of the films released this year. I don't think there are many places where a similar success could have been repeated. In that sense, I'm lucky and glad that I decided to make Ullozhukku in Malayalam.

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